Paul Scot August Interview, with Nicelle Davis
I was very fortunate as an editor to see two versions of your poem “Almost Blue.” The changes you made to the final version of the poem are subtle and more detailed, yet make a powerful difference in the poem’s tone and texture. Would you please elaborate on the importance of details in the function of your poetry?
I wrote several drafts of Almost Blue over several months, all with subtle changes. A word added, a word dropped, a change in line breaks. Then I took it with me to Sarah Lawrence College this past June where I was attending their summer writing seminar and discussed it with a few trusted readers I knew would be there. They helped me interrogate each line of the poem. The struggle was with keeping the tightness of the language along with sufficient details to infuse the desired amount of authority in the speaker. I find when I get near to a final draft, I tend to add or focus specific details into a poem. A color. A shape. A sound. A taste. These give the speaker more authority, and I hope, the reader more places to “see” the narrative while hearing the lyric.
Again referencing your poem “Almost Blue,” music seems to be sadness’ greatest friend. You write, “the full seven minutes of Chet Baker / doing his cover of Elvis Costello, / his trumpet like a dying animal. / I sit. I listen.” In what ways is your poetry like music? How is music in your poetry related to emotion?
I’m not sure if my poems are that much like music. I don’t write in meter or rhyme. But I read them out loud as I revise them, and they need to sound a certain way to my ears to be satisfying to me. But there are song references in many of my other poems, as well as just music in general. The unnamed song in How to Influence Your Dreams comes to mind, and even the theme from Jaws in On Water Heavy Nights. Perhaps it’s a subtle influence from all the years I spent playing guitar in local bands in Chicago and Milwaukee. But the right song can set the emotion of the poem, and maybe someone who has never heard Chet Baker’s version of Almost Blue will go find it and fall in love with it like I did.
Your poem “How to Influence Your Dreams” is a gorgeous list of sensory details leading up to the word “Pray”—a great and unexpected ending done with a single word. It made me wonder how you know when to end your poems?
It really depends on the poem. I looked back at my published work and see I have another poem that ended with a single word. It worked there, but wouldn’t in other poems. I tend to heavily overwrite my early drafts and then in the revision process I cut and cut until it feels right. I’ve had poems that turn out to be two poems, so I cut them in half and continue revising them on their own paths. A few poems seem to write themselves and just end exactly where they decide they want to end. Sometimes I have the ending right where I want it early on and then need to elevate the rest of the poem to meet it. A few poems have ended with a line that bludgeons the reader, but most of the others are much more subtle, softer, and tend to resonate.
What new poetry projects are you working on?
I have a large pile of new(er) poems written over the past two years that need revision, enough to keep me busy for quite a while. I think there are about 120 new poems in the folder. Inspiration comes out of nowhere at times and just hits me, and other times, actually most other times, it comes from sweat and repetition. For the past few years I’ve been writing 30 poems in April for national poetry month. These go into the folder to be revised if possible. I also have a chapbook manuscript that I keep changing but have not submitted it anywhere as of yet. And I have a full-length manuscript that I am working on as well. I hope to begin submitting them sometime in the near future.
If you could claim one poem as your theme poem, what would it be and why?
A theme poem? I’m not sure how a theme poem would work, but there are so many touchstone poems that I go back to again and again, poems that took the top of my head off, that I want to read to everybody I know and everybody I meet, that I wish I would have or could have written. But the one poem I think that does everything for me that a good poem should do? That would be My Story in a Late Style of Fire by Larry Levis from his collection Winter Stars. It pulls me in from the first line, it is narrative and lyric all at once, it has these great images, line breaks, and sounds, and it takes me for a 3 page ride through quintessential Levis. The tone is exact and heart-punching. I love to read it aloud. I’m both exhausted and exhilarated after reading it. And he uses the word scherzo. How can I not love it?
My car finds its way to the parking lot
at Bradford Beach. I cut the engine
and stare at Lake Michigan as waves break
hard over white rocks, the spray
landing on my windshield. On the radio
is the full seven minutes of Chet Baker
doing his cover of Elvis Costello,
his trumpet like a dying animal.
I sit. I listen. What else should I do?
I can't get out of my car and spin you
around the lot like I did once before.
I won't walk down the empty beach
and build ad-hoc sculptures of driftwood,
prehistoric skeletons left out to surprise
the morning joggers and dog walkers.
It’s pointless now. I sit back and I listen,
his horn just killing it, as dark waves break
over me, and I'm almost there in that deep
place where the music is all that remains,
and the wiper blades clear you away, almost.
How to Influence Your Dreams
Before bed, take a shower with the same
brand of shampoo she used, the same fruit-
smelling soap. Put on the t-shirt she stole
from your bottom drawer and used to wear
to bed, then left behind when she moved.
Go to your closet and find the blue shoebox
on the upper shelf, take it down. Find the disk
of songs she gave you. Play it. Sit on the edge
of your bed with the box on your lap. Wait
until the third song ends. Now, reach down,
open the lid. Grab the letter in the blue envelope.
Read it over several times until the words begin
to sing to you, and you can hear her voice again.
Take out the red envelope of photos. Study them.
Now, when you are almost back there, stop.
Put the photos and letters back inside the box.
Replace the lid and put the box high on the shelf.
Close the closet door and turn off the music.
Set the alarm clock. Turn off the light.
Crawl into bed. Pray.
On Water Heavy Nights
Another night dreaming of the sea,
bodies of unidentified, rough water.
The Gulf of Mexico near Clearwater
where I swam with my grandparents,
schools of unseen fish brushing against
my teen-age legs, the theme from Jaws
thumping in my brain. Or the Pacific Ocean
at Venice Beach while in my 20s, swimming
along the tide-pulled pendulum between high
and hungover. Or at Half-Moon Bay in my 30s,
celebrating New Year's Eve on the beach,
the waves crashing over regretful words
I’d scratched into the sand, hope for renewal.
But more likely Lake Michigan, having never
lived more than a few minutes away from it.
No matter the location, the result’s the same:
Tossed about on the waves, washed up on
a pebbled beach, waking as a castaway.
Then slapping the alarm clock, out of bed
and into the shower, being in complete
control of that water, if nothing else.